from Rod’s Rumor Mill
Originally appeared in TPO Volume 10, Issue 2. ©1999 Typographica Publishing.
May not be reproduced for commercial purposes.
When we last left Rod, he was sitting stunned at Meade Instruments’ sudden triumph in the Small Scope Wars. They’d just introduced the ETX 90EC, a 90mm Maksutov with great optics and a goto computer. For little more than the price of the "original" 90mm ETX. The amazing thing about this little telescope was that it actually seemed to work well, captivating both grizzled amateurs and fresh novices alike. And Meade wasn’t done yet. They were preparing to release another ETX, a 5 inch version with the same ability to use the Autostar Computer to point to thousands of deep sky objects as its little brother! Was Celestron really down for the count? Looked that way. If Meade could produce an ETX 125 which worked as well as the 90 it looked like it was all over for the Torrance gang. In the Sub 8 inch part of the market anyway. Captivated by pre-release photos of the 125, which showed it to be, if anything, even more attractive than the smaller scope, we waited for Meade to make another big, industry-changing splash of a product introduction.
THUD went the 125! Those of us who hang out on the sci.astro.amateur newsgroup on the Internet eagerly awaited the first word on the 125 from the early buyers. When early reviews started coming in, though, it became obvious that the picture wasn’t going to be a pretty one—this was not the triumph we expected. Within the first couple of weeks it was all too clear that the ETX 125EC not only did not equal the 90, but that it was a telescope with a number of real problems. Some preferred to put this down at first to "Internet rumors." Sci.astro.amateur, while a fun newsgroup to read, can also be a repository for inaccurate or at least slanted information. But Gary Seronik’s balanced but largely negative revue of an early production model of the 125 in the October 1999 Sky and Telescope gave a lot of credence to these tales of problematical ETXes. No use mincing words, the 125, one of the most eagerly awaited scopes in a long time, was turning into an unmistakable failure.
But why? What was wrong with the telescope? After all, it seemed like all Meade had to do was scale up the remarkably successful 90. How could they possibly fail? But what worked with the little scope just wasn’t good enough for a 5 inch, apparently. The first bad news we got was that the 125s suffered from significant "focus shift." And I don’t just mean the 30-45 seconds of shift SCT owners often put up with. Turning the ETX 125’s small knob to move the mirror for focusing, according to owners, resulted in image shifts of 2-5 minutes, or more! Easily enough to move objects out of the field at high power.
Another early-on set of problems we began hearing about concerned the baffle tube on the telescope’s secondary mirror. The ETX 125, like it’s smaller sibling, uses a silvered spot on the corrector as a secondary mirror, rather than a separate secondary as in a Schmidt Cassegrain or a Rubimak style Maksutov. But, to improve image contrast, Meade has glued a fluted tubular baffle around this spot. The first problem with this system is that the flared baffle increases the secondary obstruction of the 125 to nearly 40% by diameter. This is more than that found on many SCTs and is a sure way to rob images of the contrast that Maksutovs are famous for. If you’re going to use this large a central obstruction, the quality-renowned Mak design loses out to the humble SCT. The 125 baffle also has, we’re told, another deficiency. It tends to fall off! At least one early-adopter reported receiving a scope with the secondary baffle lying on the primary mirror!
Whither the 125? Is it doomed? Perhaps not. Most of the problems concern these two deficiencies, the secondary baffle and the focuser. The mounting seems better than that of the 90, with users talking about smoother, quieter operation, no doubt due, in part, to the use of real bearings rather than Teflon pads (as on the 90) for the RA axis. Meade does seem to be responding quickly to correct at least some of the 125’s "mistakes." According to the company, most of the problems were found to have been caused by poor packaging for shipment, which resulted in damaged scopes reaching users. I’ll buy this in regards to focus shift and detached secondary baffles, but what of the huge secondary obstruction caused by in-place baffle tubes? I do expect Meade to fine tune this cute little scope and to get it right sooner rather than later. But there’s no denying that what happened shortly after the ETX 125’s problems surfaced has hurt this new telescope’s popularity. Celestron introduced a goto C5.
There had been talk about a goto Celestron C5 ever since it became known, late last spring, that the venerable C5+ was being discontinued. And, to the surprise of many, the company actually announced that this new telescope, named the "NexStar 5," would be available shortly (early September, we heard). Optimists applauded: this was just what was needed, a time proven C5 OTA on a decent C5+ fork style goto mount. A mount made of METAL rather than plastic. Cynics took a wait and see attitude, but weren’t convinced the NexStar would be anything special. At the price being quoted (around $1500.00 with optional tripod), surely Celestron would have to go the flimsy plastic route? The September introduction date? How many Septembers went by before Celestron was able to bring the Ultima 2000 to market? Then two things happened which at least partially quieted critics. First, a picture of the NS5 became available. Talk about beautiful and futuristic looking! The rounded drive base and fork arm (the scope, like the C5+, supports the OTA with a single fork arm) made the NS5 look like it belonged on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise—and I don’t mean the WWII aircraft carrier! The second shock for the critics came when the NS5 really did begin shipping in September of 1999.
Almost before we knew it, the NexStars were in the hands of the first owners. The initial comments were almost 180 degrees opposed to what we’d heard about the ETX 125. This was, the happy new NexStar owners reassured us, a sturdy little telescope. Optical tube was the good old C5, an SCT model that has always been famous for quality. The computer, while lacking a few of the Meade Autostar’s niceties (an "identify mode, for example, is missing), seemed easier to use for some observers than the Autostar. Alignment seemed less troublesome, and once aligned, the scope didn’t seem to have as many problems getting on target. Best of all, what plastic was found on the NS was cosmetic in nature. The scope’s skeleton was good, old cast aluminum. One other really attractive feature of the NexStar is that it is apparently as capable of astrophotography, long exposure deep sky photography, as any C5+. Place the little devil on an optional wedge, hang a camera and off-axis guider off the back, and you too can make like Jason Ware!
But now that the dust has settled, is everything still rosy in NexStar land? Not everything. Clearly, this little telescope is giving its owners much joy. But, as old Rod so frequently points out, no telescope is perfect. It is true that the C5 OTA has always been recognized for optical quality. But if you’re expecting the almost APO refractor performance provided by the 90mm ETX (no foolin’), look elsewhere. One "feature" of the NS which has come in for criticism is its minimalist finder. Rather than a true finder scope, the NS has a "BB gun style" 0 power sighting device. In defense of this arrangement, though, while this is certainly nothing fancy, I do favor it over the small, nearly unusable ETX finders. The NS pointing device should at least be sufficient for alignment purposes.
Not surprisingly, since this is, like any computer-scope, a complicated piece of gear, we’ve been hearing of a few NexStar quality problems. Scopes with too much slop in their mount axes. Computers which arrive DOA, or do wacky things like printing garbage characters on the display or printing text upside down. Most of the electronics problems do seem related to low battery issues rather than "real" computer problems, however. Like any goto scope, the NexStar is incredibly battery hungry. Users will probably be better off running the telescope from the included AC power supply. Actually, the scope’s firmware/computer seems quite solid. Celestron seems pretty sure of it, anyway, since the program is not updatable via the Internet as is the Autostar. Changing the NS frimware would involve swapping (socketed) PROM chips. The problems with gear slop in the mount? At this price point, I don’t expect Astro-Physics quality, and the fact that the scope seems to have very good pointing accuracy tells me that the mount is pretty much "good enough" if not perfect mechanically.
So Celestron wins and wins big? They could. If I were Celestron’s CEO, I’d quickly apply a coup-de-grace to Meade by bringing out a NEXSTAR 11! This is an area where Celestron could clean up. Heretofore, they’ve let Meade have the larger-than-eight-inch goto market, never bringing out a long-promised Ultima 2000 11. The 10 inch LX-200 (which, I understand is the most popular LX-200 model), is looking a little long in the tooth, and is ripe for toppling by a modern competitor. Will this happen? We’ll see if heretofore tech-phobic Celestron really takes the bit in its teeth. There is a rumor floating around about an NS 11" introduction, supposedly in the first half of next year. Remember, you heard it here first! Then we count Meade out in the goto wars? Not on your life! Meade seems to thrive on competition. They definitely have the innovative technology and computer-savvy attitude to strike back. I would not be at all surprised to see the quick introduction of an LX-300.
However things fall out, the next few months are gonna be darned interesting for Joe and Jane amateur! For better or worse, high-tech goto scopes show every sign of dominating the telescope marketplace from now on. Expect a lot of good, and, alas, some "worse" too. The "worse" right now being the new Meade DS line of inexpensive goto telescopes. "DS" is supposed to stand for "deep space," I understand, but after getting a look at the 70mm refractor in this line in a mall store, I believe that "DS" more likely means "Department Store!"
Stop the PRESSES! We’ve just received word here at Chaos Manor South that JMI (Jim’s Mobile) is coming out with a NGT six inch f5 reflector on a goto mount. For $999.00. Here we go again!